The “paperless office” is not a new concept. Indeed, a majority of firms have already planned or implemented a paperless strategy. But new technologies such as mobile devices, social media, “Big Data” and the cloud are now mainstream. And paperless technology trends are changing to keep up.
Accounting firms are rethinking paperless processes. They are designing new workflows that digitize information as soon as it comes into the firm. What’s at stake is more than the cost savings associated with eliminating paper and storage. Today, most firms have already adopted some level of paperless technology. Firms that haven’t may become increasingly less competitive. They will be slower to respond to clients, less collaborative and lacking key insights that firm-wide analytics could provide.
As client expectations change and technology evolves, firms are considering these questions:
- How can we share information more effectively across the firm?
- If we capture more information electronically, how can we use it to help the firm grow?
- Where and how should professionals be able to access firm information?
- How can we better collaborate with clients regardless of busy schedules?
- Should we let the staff bring personal mobile devices to work?
- Is there a way to preserve and share the experiential knowledge of our professionals?
Let’s explore some of the emerging paperless technology trends that firms will need to consider and then examine paperless technology solutions that will help accounting firms implement fully paperless workflows.
Emerging Paperless Technology Trends
Many firms already embrace mobile technology in the firm, such as tablets. However, the trend of professionals bringing their own personal devices into the workplace (BYOD or Bring Your Own Device) presents some unique security challenges that firms will need to address. But the convenience benefits are clear — professionals can access client and engagement information from anywhere, at any time.
Cloud Computing / Software as a Service (SaaS)
As work and personal lives continue to converge, the ability to work anywhere is becoming more important to accounting professionals. And this is particularly true for younger professionals. Cloud solutions can also encourage better collaboration with both business and individual clients. Some applications provide clients with access to their own information. Professionals can also enhance client service by being able to access information “on-site” during client meetings.
Big Data and Analytics
As more information is gathered in the cloud or in centralized software systems, firms can use this “Big Data” for deeper analysis. In fact, it’s almost certain that analytics will have a big impact on the future of the accounting industry. Firms are searching for the tools and processes to help them collect and analyze data that can be used to help the firm grow, evaluate staff performance, identify the most profitable types of clients and engagements, and more.
With such high adoption in the consumer world, social media is becoming ubiquitous. Younger professionals, in particular, consider social tools to be valuable for both networking and collaboration. Some firms are exploring ways to adapt enterprise social media for the benefit of the firm.
Tools for the Paperless Accounting Firm
Document Management Systems (DMS)
The primary tool for a paperless firm is the Document Management System (DMS), and it’s important that firms select a system that meets their needs and supports their unique workflows. A document is really any form of digitized information that you can store. That includes word processing documents, spreadsheets, email, QuickBook® files, scans and PDFs.
Most firms without a DMS have a combination of paper and electronic files that are stored in lots of places. They may store some files on the firm’s server, some on individual PCs and some in file cabinets. Professionals at these firms have a lot of difficulty putting their hands on the information they need and spend too much time searching for files and documents. Files are not easily shared across teams, and there is a considerable security risk in not having centralized control and access over sensitive personal information.
A DMS provides the following benefits to accounting firms: better document retention, reliable data security, effective sharing and collaboration within the firm, access (if allowed) to professionals when they are out of the office, and a lot of time saved and frustration avoided.
To select the right DMS for your firm, bear in mind that a system designed for accounting firms will likely provide a better fit than a more generic office solution. A good DMS should:
- Support or supplement your firm’s existing workflows.
- Provide sufficient security based on different user roles within your firm.
- Automatically manage file retention based on your firm’s document retention policies. For example, you might retain client emails for only two years, but keep their tax returns for seven.
- Provide file version and audit history.
- Allow your firm to be more productive — you’ll spend less time looking for files or client folders.
When portals first came onto the scene, they were mostly used as a secure, online space for firms to deliver tax returns to clients. Now, thanks to advanced portal features and outside-the-box thinking, portals have become true collaboration spaces for professionals and clients.
Identity theft is rampant. But 48 states have data breach legislation that may require a firm to notify clients if personal information has been compromised. Sensitive information should never be emailed without encryption, and for many firms, email encryption is not enough. Yet clients want to be able to access their documents quickly. And they want to send information to accountants without a lot of hassle as well. Secure portals offer this convenience with less risk.
Both firms and clients enjoy many benefits when collaborating through a portal:
- Clients can access vital documents, such as past years’ tax returns, from any location 24/7.
- Clients can easily upload large documents and all types of files, including Quickbooks files. File size limitations make this more difficult to do with email.
- Portals provide better data security, enabling firms to ensure compliance with applicable laws and regulations, and reduce the firm’s risk of data breaches and identity theft.
- Clients and professionals can use portals to communicate and collaborate when each has time available — enabling forward progress when busy schedules would otherwise conflict.
- The firm saves money (paper, printing, mailing, storage costs) while providing faster client service.
- Portals bring clients back to the firm’s website repeatedly, thereby providing greater opportunities to market additional services and increasing the firm’s “stickiness” with clients.
Enterprise Social Media / Knowledge Management (KM)
In addition to providing professionals with access to good research and continuing education, it’s important to share knowledge of firm policies and procedures and best practices. Much of this information comes from senior professionals and partners whose time is very valuable. Before these key leaders retire or leave the firm, it would be desirable to record their knowledge and provide access to it in a way that makes it easy for the staff to search, share and build upon information. That’s where Knowledge Management (KM) systems come into play.
It’s important — especially in larger firms — to have a formalized system for recording and disseminating firm knowledge. With a larger staff, it’s essential that senior leaders are not constantly interrupted by the same questions and issues. KM provides a way to capture an answer once and then build upon it, using enterprise social media tools such as FAQs, blogs, Wikis and more.
Incorporating Paperless Technology Trends into Your Firm
A strong majority of accounting firms have already implemented a paperless firm strategy and started deploying the necessary technology solutions to achieve this business objective. Firms that continue to maintain paper-intensive processes risk developing a significant competitive disadvantage over time. To go paperless, firms need to address three primary technology needs: document management (DMS), client collaboration (Portals) and internal collaboration (KM).
Adopting a paperless strategy yields other benefits as well. Digitized files enable firms to take advantage of other emerging paperless technology trends — especially mobile devices and the cloud. These technologies have the potential to improve client service and help accounting professionals improve their productivity through anywhere, anytime access to work. Successful firms will continue to keep an eye toward emerging technology trends and new best practices that can help firms take advantage of potential game changers.
Firms will find a lot of document management and client portal products in the marketplace. It’s helpful to search out vendors, including Wolters Kluwer, that specialize in delivering solutions for the accounting industry. These vendors can share industry best practices and in-the-trenches experience that help a firm plan an effective paperless strategy, evaluate and implement solutions, and train staff to adopt new paperless processes and technology.